Imogen Kelly presents her show La Grande Folie at Adelaide Cabaret Festival this weekend. In it, she playfully toys with the idea that perhaps stripping can save the world. Read our interview with her below to find out more.
La Grande Folie is said to be your burlesque acts, which won you prizes at the Burlesque Hall of Fame, brought together in one show for the first time. What can audiences expect?
I tell stories about my life as a showgirl, because my character is that I am so lost in my own vacuum that I believe I can save the world with stripping. The whole thing is can striptease save the world. And that’s the grand folie. But it’s also that my life as a showgirl is to just be one big fat folie. It’s sort of a play on that. I tell these stories about my life and then I do the acts that are associated with the stories. So, it starts as this sort of wonderful cavalcade of feathers and fluff. And whether we can house the giant chandelier is the next question. And then we do Marie Antoinette.
Then later I talk about getting breast cancer. Winning World Queen of Burlesque. And then I get breast cancer, and then I come out the other side and am doing an act about the Great Barrier Reef. I’ve moved up here and I work in conservation with my community. So, it’s a story of maybe stripping can save the world, but it’s all very tongue in cheek and it’s all really very fun and quite rude and naughty in places but never too rude and never too naughty, I hope.
You’ve lived in Japan and the U.K.. Have you performed burlesque there? And did you find that what shocked audiences or the boundaries that you could push with different?
Oh, definitely. Well, Japan and England are quite conservative. Japan especially, although they love naughty.
They are known a bit for that, aren’t they?
Yeah. The manga or their adult anime, you get an idea that, well, there’s really anything goes there, but there’s still a high degree of censorship. So, it’s an interesting country in that regard. But England, they just love bottoms and ooh pervy. It’s quite full on. The first time I lived in England, I went over and did the act. I’ve been performing in Sydney and people were just like, wow and were blown away. I think I was running around naked pretty much and dressed as a giraffe or something. What little was on me represented a giraffe anyway. They’d never seen anything like it. That was great too to be able to play with that. But I found people could be easily shocked and they loved it too. They loved being shocked in a fun way.
It was the same time as the Jim Rose Circus and all this sort of really hardcore stuff was coming out. There wasn’t really much of an energy. There was no burlesque revival at the time. I really was a lone horse in that race. There was no one else doing what I was doing at the time.
People did find it shocking that I was doing striptease, which was so taboo and so frowned upon. But it’s done in a glamorous, really theatrical way, and both countries responded really well. They loved it in certain circles. In certain circles, you couldn’t do that stuff. Interestingly enough, you couldn’t do it in strip clubs. They didn’t want that. I just wanted to moderate that. But when it came to actually getting work outside the strip clubs, in the nightclubs or whatever, you couldn’t go big enough. They just loved the glamour. They hadn’t seen anything like it since Leigh Bowery was on his way out at that time, so it was sort of like the next wave of club kids. I got involved in that. They loved the glamour, they loved this heightened idea of femininity that was sort of a satire of femininity. But it was also really celebrating so many things that women have been told to criticise about themselves so, they loved it.
How long have you been performing Burlesque?
For 33 years I don’t count.
So, basically, since you were a child!
Yeah, since 1989. I was in my teens when I started.
How would you describe burlesque for someone that had no idea what it was?
I think burlesque is striptease, but always with an angle, always with a sense of knowing exactly what we’re doing. Our audience are mainly women. Of course, there’s a lot there for men to enjoy as well. But I find it interesting that my audience continue to be women, and women of all ages. A lot of people get a real buzz out of seeing somebody satirise glamour or be the absolute height of glamour on a theatrical stage. And that’s what I’d say burlesque is. It’s very self-aware, very tongue in cheek. And often trying to be the epitome of glamour. And whether we continue with that or whether we take it apart is up to the artist.
Because of the French angle. I’m going to ask you a little bit about the Let Them Eat Cake Act, which you’ll be performing in La Grande Folie. I see that you had also done a solo show, including her story about seven judged and damned eight leading ladies in history. Did this come from that or did this exist prior to that? Where did it come from?
Yeah, it existed before that. This is an act I created in 1994 and 1995. I got a job with the government through the AIDS Council, and I tell this story in the show but it’s about me as a young woman being confronted by all these men in suits and then saying “How are you going to stop strippers spreading AIDS?” And I had to educate all these government bodies about what our job really entailed, about who we worked for, about how they operated. And it led to a lot of my advice being taken in terms of changing legislation for not just strippers, but sex workers’ rights.
So, it became this moment in time where because the Wood Royal Commission was going on into the King’s Cross police, we could actually do something about the conditions in those clubs which were violent and appalling. And it actually worked. And we pushed through this legislation, which continues to be improved upon but it really did change the performing landscape of Sydney and they turned around, they said, “Well, you’ve got to do an act now to prove that strippers are actually entertainers” and that’s the act I came up with for the launch of the project was this Marie Antoinette character because all my life I’ve been called a whore.
I just really had had enough of that and it seemed to me that that word or those collection of words, which we go through in the show – that’s what I mean when I say it’s a bit risqué and it’s a bit touch and go in places – seem to make it permissible to treat some people very badly and at that time society had accepted those lives were expendable and I’d seen enough of it. So, I pushed for change and got the union on board and got politicians on board. And the next thing you know, we had new legislation and all the clubs got closed and the bosses all went to jail. it was pretty massive.
And then Let them eat cake is kind of a perfect way to celebrate that happening.
Yes, it is. And I think it’s always relevant because in some ways that character always represents the 1% as well. It always represents those people who should be listening but aren’t listening and when they do listen and try to do something, they get it horribly wrong, you know, it’s like, “Oh well, you’re starving, so let’s eat some cake”. And then she does the splits and rolls around in it which is not what the starving peasants needed at all. It’s a play on that as well. And very therefore poignant to these times, I feel. It continues to be an act that people book like crazy “let’s get the Marie Antoinette”, because it’s always kind of relevant.
It just takes it to that whole other level with the cake.
But it is a riot. That act is so much fun. And audiences sometimes they’re just screaming, “nooooo”.
I’m guessing you don’t want to be in the front row for that one. You might get some cake thrown at you.
I think the Governor-General ended up wearing cream after. But I do tend to be quite self-contained with the cake these days. But you never know.
You’ve got a performing arts background having studied performance, circus arts, filmmaking and directing, I think. How have those studies or which aspects of them informed your burlesque performances?
I don’t think I would have started stripping if I didn’t have to put myself through uni to study performance. The school I went to, the university I went to at the time was chockablock full of first wave feminists, who thought everything I was doing was all about the male gaze, whereas I was or what I was doing was about sabotaging or playing with the male gaze or just sending it up.
And so, I had a pretty rough time at uni, but it’s my response to them trying to fail me or bullying me essentially, and other women got bullied, was just to become more extreme and to the point where they just kind of don’t know what to do with her. And they all kind of gave up because by the end of it I’d built a false wall in the gallery and I had a picture frame through which I was performing, and people had to come up really close and look through a magnifying glass in the picture to see me on the other side performing. And I had this huge queue and I could see them all through my little piece of glass. But the other thing was that I could see with all those hardcore feminists stood there all night and I watched their interactions with this painting or the responses, and it was like, “Ha ha ha, I can see you. I know you’re enjoying this.”
And so, I felt that that was a victory that at that point, I felt I know what I’m doing because it’s easy to doubt yourself when you’ve got people saying you shouldn’t be doing that or that’s harming women or something like that. No, I’m taking the form to comment on the form. And, I’ve always been successful at that, at least using this to educate people or to help people lighten up about sex and sexuality and to admire women.
I didn’t expect to keep doing striptease after I did NIDA or after I did Circus because I had so many skills under my belt at that point. It was ridiculous, but I was trying to be a director and there weren’t many openings for women in directing in Australia at that time and I don’t know if there still even are. So, I ended up going back to stripping, which kind of broke my heart. To support myself whilst waiting for the jobs to come, rolling in or opportunities. Then the burlesque revival started up and I realised I’ve got of this material and I know how to really work it now because I’ve got all these other skills so it ended up being the main thing that I’ve been doing now for 30 years.
I read Chapter Two, Chaucer’s Candle that you wrote online. You write incredibly well. So, there’s another skill you’ve got there! Do you envisage you might ever write a book?
That [online] book has 17 chapters. And it is, again, about that time that I was talking about with the Royal Commission and my job as an AIDS officer for the AIDS Council during the AIDS epidemic. It’s really about my youth and the things that made me and the things I discovered and I try to relate it all to these times that we’re going through. I really enjoy writing. But writing that book, it proves to be quite difficult because I have to be really in the mood and it takes me to some very dark places. It’s been such a tough, weird, bizarre time that we’ve been going through. I think at the end of it, when it’s complete, the book will be a documentation of just how bizarre human beings can be to each other. I really love writing.
What I saw online will actually be part of a physical book?
That’s right. When I’m ready and I’ve gotten past this very difficult couple of chapters that i’m into right now.
It’s exciting because I get to talk about all my stage mums who were trans, POC, Hells Angels… amazing women, and they’ve all helped me be who I am. So, the aim of the book is to talk about them. But in talking about them, I find myself telling this entire story, which is quite massive, about change in society in regards to women’s bodies and our sexuality and hopefully people’s appreciation of women as opposed to their condemnation.
Yeah, it’s still a difficult fight, unfortunately. I also saw that you were involved with the The Dukes Up, Chris O’Brien Life House course. I think you wrote the course. You were doing burlesque before you got cancer but did burlesque help you re-find confidence in your body after cancer?
It’s my community, really. Because we are quite a community. It doesn’t mean we all get together and sing Kumbayah at the end of every night, but with things like that, just knowing that people were worried about me, they were concerned. They were the first people to put me back on stage. And, subsequently, some of my friends in the burlesque community have also had cancer.
It’s now quite a fluid discussion, I would hope, in the burlesque community and we support each other through that. It was a little to get back up on stage. And especially as now I’m about to have another round of surgery and I have no idea what is going to be on the other side of that, whether I’ll have any sort of breasts at all or not.
I’m so sorry. I had absolutely no idea you were still fighting it.
It’s just the reconstructions. I was one of the first people to do this and insist upon it. And it was at the same time as Angelina Jolie. So, my surgeons talked to her surgeons and together they all contrived this way to try and save nipples.
That’s the other story I tell. They watch this act and they know hopefully that it’s about cancer. You have to sort of have surgeries all the time. Like you don’t just get them fixed and then that’s it. I think for some women, if you’ve got a bit more body fat, maybe that’s the way it goes. But for me, it’s an ongoing series of procedures just to look like I have breasts still. And I’m wondering really whether it’s worth it…
I had absolutely no idea that it was an ongoing process.
I think how you get it done and then you’re sorted and you find that can often mean a series. It’s like somebody said to me at the start of it, “Oh, it’s a bit of a journey, you know, reconstruction.” And I was like, “What are you talking about?”
You’re thinking you get the new ones and you’re done!
It is a bit of a journey because you’ve got to keep on. For some people but for some others it’s not like this at all. So, we’ll see how it ends up. I talk about that in the show.
It was a decision to be real with people in the show. You give actual, real stories because it’s quite personal. But as I said, I’m a campaigner for breast cancer. So, for me, it’s just what you do because you know, there’s going to be people in the audience. It might happen to them or it might be they might be going through it. They might have been through it. Breast cancer can happen to men. I like to normalise it as much as possible.
Do you know how many women after doing your course have tried some burlesque?
I didn’t continue with it after that. I know they really enjoyed the course. Chris O’Brien, Lifehouse are very supportive and wanted me to continue and I will probably do it up here.
People everywhere are facing this. I went out to the desert to see how Aboriginal people are dealing with it and how cancer treatments go out there. That was last year and I’ve got my surgery and brought in physical fitness to improve on my workshops and because of COVID, I just haven’t gotten back to it. So really, I feel like I’ve been twiddling my thumbs on Dukes Up for the last two years. I even did synchronized swimming. I teach them synchronized swimming. I’ll chuck them in the pool!
People just need to come together when they’ve been through something like that. You need a little bit of support around your community or even just other women who’ve been through it. It doesn’t mean you sit around and talk about it all, just understanding and making connections. And for me, the most valuable thing was meeting survivors. That just helped me just go, “no, in five years I’m going to be like you” because I couldn’t believe it at the time. I thought, I’m never going to be okay after this but then I’ve met survivors who were five years on from me and I’d go “right, I’m going to be as solid as you in five years.” And I worked really hard on it and now I can run these workshops. It does really help meeting people who survived or have gone through X, Y or Z.
Why should audiences come to see La Grand Folie?
To have a great night out. We need it! I tell my stories because this is stuff I’ve done. And it’s really small, some of it, but it’s helped people.
Right now, the crisis we face is so huge, I don’t think anybody knows what to do. But we can all do something, you know, and it doesn’t have to be huge. You don’t have to save the world. You can just focus on one small thing. You can focus on your block. You can focus on your suburb or your city and just get out there – my whole thing is about conservation. So, it’s like, just pick one species that’s keystone and just once a week, think about them, give it a couple of hours, or go and donate some time or do some research. Just give a little bit of your time and a little bit of thought to how you can help repair the planet, because it’s not enough to just not buy plastic or stuff, but you’ve actually got to get your hands on the planet right now.
I’m trying to get people feeling empowered enough to do that and not feel like there’s nothing we can do, because there’s always something you can do. And that’s the story of the show. It’s as much of a folie as it might feel like all of my folies have paid off, and I felt silly at the time and I felt like it was hopeless at the time but if it’s not just one person or you don’t feel alone doing it, you know that other people are doing it, suddenly change just starts happening and it is like a snowball is that effect of just knowing that we can do it, but we just all need to start doing a little bit, something that doesn’t feel overwhelming or silly. Just get your hands on the planet.
Anyway, that’s what this show talks about. I try not to preach to people because we’re so busy, but just to set a little bit of time aside for research and then suddenly you find you’re doing it.
I think I started with conservation about eight years ago and I moved out to the bush and I knew nothing. And I had to learn how to manage my own water and live off the rainwater and learn about all the different species around me and how they interacted. It was quite a thing and it took me a long time to get my head around it. And then by the time that was done, I was ready to move up here [North East Queensland] and start on another level and just learn “oh ok there’s a whole lot of conservationists up here. There are huge communities working just to preserve a few small species and everybody just does a little bit.” Someone goes along the beach and picks up plastic or somebody else has been collecting plastic bottle tops and sending them off to people that make limbs for children who are amputees and they use 3D printers to make kids limbs because kids are always growing and they need their limbs replaced all the time.
So, it’s just little things. It’s amazing how something so small can contribute to somebody else’s quality of life like that. That’s what I mean. Suddenly you find your people and there’s other people doing it and it all gets easier and people teach you stuff and then it’s suddenly not very hard anymore and you find you’re doing it and then it’s contributing and it’s helping. So, I’m trying to put that in the story without sounding like a preacher because that’s awful when you go out for a good night out and have a great time and somebody gets up on their soap box but maybe striptease can help inspire you to get involved with the climate.
So, it’s a show that is good entertainment, but it’s also got a message.
Yeah, it’s got a bit of soul in there and just encouraging people, trying to help people feel empowered. Even up here, it’s strange. My conservation course has been cancelled for two terms now until after the election, because there’s so many farmers here and it’s kind of like “we’re not on opposite sides” but that’s just politicians. So, we’ve just got to meet the people themselves. It’s all that networking that needs to be done.
That’s what I’m doing now. Just trying to help people feel good and help people feel empowered. Burlesque is so great for that because it’s silly and it’s fun and it’s outrageous and it’s frivolous. It’s kind of ridiculous this one person thinking they can save the world by showing their bits and pieces.
Well, you never know. Maybe we need to send you over to change Putin’s mind about Ukraine.
Oh God! Don’t make me strip for Putin, please.
We thank Imogen Kelly for this interview and look forward to seeing La Grande Folie tonight.
You can see Imogen Kelly performing La Grande Folie including her Let them eat cake routine at Adelaide Cabaret Festival for one show only (details below)
KEY INFO FOR LA GRANDE FOLIE
WHAT: La Grande Folie from Imogen Kelly
WHEN: Friday 17 June, 9:30pm
WHERE: Dunstan Playhouse, Festival Centre, Adelaide
HOW: Purchase your tickets via this link: https://www.adelaidecabaretfestival.com.au/events/imogen-kelly-la-grande-folie/
Ticket prices are as follows:
- Premium Adult$59.00
- A Reserve Adult$49.00
Can stripping save the world?